A Cup of Water for an Alien (Faith in the Public Square)
What follows is an excerpt from my book Faith in the Public Square. This chapter, like most of the chapters in the book was originally written for the Lompoc Record, published between 2006 and 2008).Unfortunately, the immigration crisis has gotten more severe under the current administration. I share this in the hope that we can have a conversation that will lead to a resolution that is just and humane.
For years we have heard calls for immigration reform. In part because of a lack of movement on the issue at the Federal level, some states have taken matters into their own hands, imposing rather draconian solutions that can lead to racial/ethnic profiling and harassment. Not since the Reagan Administration have meaningful responses to immigration issues been undertaken, and so millions of people, including children find themselves in legal limbo, even as questions abound as to the impact of undocumented people on the American economy and the nation’s social and cultural systems.
Polls certainly suggest that immigration is an issue of concern, with questions of security complicating what was once considered an economic or cultural issue. These polls also suggest that Americans are sharply divided over the issue. That there are such sharp divisions over immigration shouldn’t surprise us. Although we are a nation of immigrants, there has long been an anti-immigrant sentiment in America. Think of the Klan and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1 9th Century. Back then the targets were African-Americans, Irish, Italian, and Jewish, but as time wore on others were added to the list. Perhaps you remember the sentiment as it played out in the movie Gangs of New York.
America has a tradition of opening its doors to immigrants. My ancestors came from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and Holland in search of a new life and new opportunities. They
responded to the message engraved on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Of course, the welcome mat has been more freely extended to some than to others.
That something must be done to fix a broken immigration system is without question, but the debates show that there is no easy or perfect solution. As history demonstrates, building walls does little to keep determined migrants out and criminalizing acts of charity seems not just un-American, but inhumane. Besides, there are economic issues – we’ve become dependent on immigrant labor (whether legal or not) to work our farms, clean our homes and hotels, cook our food, mow our lawns, and clean our houses. Most of the eleven million “illegals” living here, work hard, hoping they can better their lives. That was the goal of my ancestors as well.
When Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles issued a much-criticized statement that said that the Catholic Church would continue offering compassionate services to illegal immigrants even if the practice is outlawed by the government, many called this statement un-American. That may be true, but I remember a group of Christians who told the governing officials that they must obey God rather than human authorities (Acts 4:18-21).
Cardinal Mahoney’s words echo biblical traditions that call for God’s people to care for the alien and the foreigner among them. The book of Leviticus says: "when an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33-34). As we debate immigration reform, perhaps these words will offer us some vital guidelines.
While security is certainly an issue of great concern, fear must not be the engine that drives immigration reform. With few illegals coming here for malicious reasons, let’s remember the call to care for the neighbor in need. Besides, it’s short-sighted to deny the alien, whether legal or not, education and medical care. One faith-based organization that has tackled this issue head on is Humane Borders, a Tucson based organization that not only advocates for immigration reform, it provides water stations in the desert. In spite of walls and border patrols, people keep migrating north, many of whom make it across the border only to die of thirst in the searing desert heat. But, a cup of water, a very biblical image, can save a life. For more information about this ministry, check their website: http://www.humaneborders.org/. As Deuteronomy reminds us: “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
Faithin the Public Square, (Energion Publications, 2012), pp. 131-133.